How northern Ontario’s Rainbow Camp creates a safe space for LGBTQ youth

At Rainbow Camp, located just east of Sault Ste. Marie, young people canoe, do yoga, and learn about LGBTQ history. TVO.org talks with co-founder Harry Stewart about how the camp came to be and why it’s important to build supportive environments
By Claude Sharma - Published on June 24, 2019
Bow of rowboat on beach with sunlit water in the background.
Rainbow Camp offers LGBTQ history, canoeing, yoga, make-up classes, a talent show, and a closing-night dance. (Courtesy of Harry Stewart)

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Harry Stewart is feeling the grind this month: the 60-year old has just three weeks left to finish organizing and fundraising for the kick-off of Rainbow Camp 2019. Located in Echo Bay, just east of Sault Ste. Marie, the camp welcomes LGBTQ youth from all over Canada and the United States.

The idea for the camp was born from Stewart’s faith — and what he saw as the need to make Christian congregations more inclusive. In 2009, he and his husband, Chris Southin, founded the Welcome Friend Association, a registered charity that provides outreach to and support for people affected by gender and sexual issues. The organization held workshops with churches to discuss how they could become more welcoming of the LGBTQ community — but while the events were well attended, Stewart says, there weren’t many young people present. So he decided to create something just for children and teens that would give them the kinds of opportunities he hadn’t had growing up in Thessalon, on the north shore of Lake Huron.

In 2012, Welcome Friend hosted its first Rainbow Camp: for one week, 14 campers did arts and crafts, played capture the flag, and learned sex ed in a judgment-free environment. The camp has grown and developed over the past seven years: there’s now LGBTQ history, canoeing, yoga, make-up classes, a talent show, a closing-night dance. The upcoming season will feature three separate week-long sessions with 40 campers each, for a total of 120 youth. (The first two weeks are for 15- to 17-year-olds, and the third is for 12- to 14-year-olds. There’s also a two-week leadership-training program for campers aged 17 to 18.)

Including campsite rentals, wages, and travel and registration fees, the total cost for the season will be around $200,000 (fees amount to $1,500 per camper, but they’re asked to cover only $350, and financial assistance is available). Welcome Friend hasn’t yet hit that target, Stewart says, but, given his experience of previous years, he’s confident it will. 

TVO.org spoke with Stewart about the origins of Rainbow Camp, his plans for the future, and why it’s important to create safe spaces for LGBTQ youth.

Why did you create this camp?

There are many reasons, but the biggest thing is for kids to feel safe. It’s for LGBT youth or queer kids or kids under the rainbow to have the opportunity to be themselves. If Jeff wants to try out being Sally, it’s the safe place to do that. If Dorothy wants to be Joe, that works, too. The safe space is allowing that to happen. And the kids are very responsive to it, and so are the staff. We work very hard on pronouns, and we allow them to change their pronouns — that allows them to change their names, and they get to try on something different. And it's truly amazing and rewarding to see how these kids blossom. For most of them, it's the first time that they’ve been able to do that. They thought about it or tried it, or whatever, but they can actually do this here in a very supportive environment. And it is so cool.

How has the camp evolved since 2012?
I won't say it's easier being lesbian or gay or some form of that, but that’s the audience we were attracting. And then we had a couple of trans kids come, and once the trans kids felt safe, the word spreads like wildfire. Something as simple having a T-shirt so you can't see their chest when they're swimming. So they have to either wear a T-shirt or a two-piece bathing suit of some sort so that everybody's on the same playing field. And if you put these kids all on the same level, it's amazing to see. This camper had her feet in the water, and she was just walking back and forth, and it was the first time she'd ever been in the water, because she never felt comfortable, because she always figured everybody was looking at her. And just the small things make such a major difference in these kids’ lives.

Do you see changes in the campers over the course of their time with you?
For most of the campers, I would say that they come in afraid or uncertain of who they are. So we go from one extreme to the other: we have the shy ones, the ones that are hesitant, and you can just see they’re trying to feel their way through. And then you have others that come across as really confident. But by the end of the week, you all see them in a different light. They are smiling; they are happy. The confidence level in them just beams. It is very transformative.

What are your future plans for Rainbow Camp?
We could actually do eight weeks of programming, so we could have a full summer camp. What I envision, what the board and camp director envision, is at least two weeks of the 12- to 14-year-olds, two weeks of the 15- to 17-year-olds. We would love one week of camp for two-spirit youth. And my vison there is to have it run by two-spirit or First Nations people. Our counsellors can be there to help with camping 101, but the actual programming would be really cool if it could be done by First Nations people. I'd love to have a drag camp. Somebody beat me to it. I was hoping to be the first, but I see somebody British Columbia has done it, but that's okay. Kids love drag, and with RuPaul and all that kind of stuff, it's taking off. And I'd love to have an AIDS camp for kids for one week.

Is there any moment in particular that’s stuck with you?
So one camper shared with the group that he had come to camp and had packed a dress. He said his mom found a dress in his closet, and he’d said that he was storing it for a girlfriend. A month before Rainbow Camp came, he told his mom that, no, actually, the dress was to take to camp. With the kids all listening to this, he said, “This is the first time I've ever felt safe enough, so is it okay if I change at break and put the dress on?” And all the kids were ecstatic. So this young guy comes out in a bright-red dress with pumps on — you have to remember we are on a beach — and it’s so totally mind-blowing that this kid felt so safe to do this and not be ridiculed and not teased. In my environment growing up, that would never have happened. And that set the tone for that year real fast. I mean, this camper was coming from a small town and would never be able to experience or try what he did there and feel safe.

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